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Sturgis Could See Largest Motorcycle Rally As Delta Variant Is On The Rise

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SDPB/Arielle Zionts
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Left: The Budweiser Clydesdales pose for photos before parading down Main Street. Right: A motorcycle decorated with antlers and taxidermy has a donation jar that raises money for animal shelters.

The Budweiser Clydesdale, a man dressed as Captain America, women wearing nothing but body paint, and a motorcycle covered in antlers and taxidermy are just some of the sites to see at the 81st annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.  

Sturgis, which has less than 7,000 residents, will temporarily become the state’s biggest city as around 700,000 bikers are expected roll in for the 10-day event. Officials say the rally is on track to be the biggest one ever.  

The event has no vaccination, testing or masking requirements as people ride outdoors but also gather at tattoo parlors, bars, campsites and packed concerts.   

Gov. Kristi Noem and the Sturgis mayor say the rally is safe despite medical experts saying it could lead to a spike in cases due to the Delta variant and low vaccination rates in the Black Hills.    

COVID safety

The tattooed, leather-clad crowd cheered Friday as the opening day parade headed down Main Street. The drag is closed to cars but lined with hundreds of bikes and massive bars packed with riders and barely dressed dancers.  

Mayor Mark Carstensen said there was no debate about hosting the rally like there was last year.  

“No doubt this year at all, no. No discussion at all,” he said as a band warmed up on Main Street. “Because of the normalcy that we’ve been experiencing really for a long time now.”  

Carstensen said it was too late to reconsider once the Delta variant arrived.   

“By the time it happened everything’s already been planned, done, organized, ready to go, people are already here so there’s not much we can do,” he said.  

Medical experts are concerned about the virus spreading in the Black Hills and across the country as riders return home.  

“The Sturgis Rally unfortunately increases the risk for a spread because we know the Delta variant is causing rises in say, Arkansas, Missouri and several other states,” said Dr. Shankar Kurra, vice president of medical affairs at Monument Health. “What we anticipate is that two weeks from the rally, if we see a surge, we are ready, we’ve got the capacity to deal with that.”   

Researchers from the CDC found at least 649 COVID cases linked to last year’s rally, which was held despite 60% of Sturgis residents saying they wanted it postponed.  

The CDC says 44% of eligible people are fully vaccinated in Meade County as cases rise within South Dakota.

Voices of Sturgis

Lina Skipper blended into the Sturgis crowd with her rainbow hair and heart-shaped sunglasses as she took a smoke break outside a tattoo shop. She’s vaccinated and wears a mask when tattooing clients because she doesn’t want to infect her high-risk relatives with the Delta variant once she returns home to Colorado.  

 “We’re not requiring clients to wear their masks because unfortunately it’s not like a state-mandate thing. It’s hard to ask people to wear it because you’re going to face a lot of resistance,” Skipper said.  

Other rally goers shared medically inaccurate beliefs about COVID-19 and the vaccine, and focused on their personal, anecdotal experiences.  

A group of Bikers for Christ gathered outside the community center. Member Jenny McKinney is a school bus driver who’s attending the rally with her husband for the first time.  

“I work with school children in Indiana. If I was going to be sick I’d be sick already. The more you’re exposed, the better your health can be and that’s basically what we chose. We chose to not get immunized,” she said. “A motorcycle can be more dangerous than COVID. Something’s going to get you. You just need to know where you’re going when you die.”    

Medical experts say that trying to achieve herd immunity this way is dangerous, that the best way to protect oneself and end the pandemic is through vaccination.  

Shawna Garland also works with students. But the Nebraska high school teacher is vaccinated and trying to avoid crowds.  

 “Well, my friend’s coming up to see her relation and asked if I wanted to go and I said ‘yeah! I want to see what it’s all about.’ I just like to people watch and shop,” she said.  

After arriving on a ruby red Indian motorcycle he bought at last year’s rally, Eric Kass walked across the street from a packed bar. The veteran and former corrections officer does not plan to get vaccinated.  

“I just love seeing the bikes, the camaraderie of people trying to get along, the tattoos – I just got a full arm tattoo – just love the atmosphere,” Kass said.  

Last year, Sturgis conducted mass testing for asymptomatic people to help monitor the virus. This year it’s delivering at-home tests for those who want it. Dr. Kurra said Monument Health will monitor cases through testing and the amount of people walking through its hospital doors.